Not far from my hometown of Crossmaglen, County Armagh, sits the rugged mountain, Slieve Gullion. The mountain, formed soon after the end of the last ice age, almost 11,000 years ago, figures prominently in the stories of the ancient mythology of Ireland.
“Gullion: Mountain of Steep Slopes.” © John A. Brennan 2015. All Rights Reserved.
They call me Gullion. I am old as time itself, older than the pre-dawn of life, forged in the crucible of a ring of fire, before man existed. Up here the air is pure and fresh and crisp as the frost of winter’s breath. I’ve seen it all from up here, here by the bottomless lake, here beside the elevated cairns and high burial places. I was born of violent upheaval when the vast ice sheets melted and the land was empty and free. Born before the outsiders came and changed it all with ignorant chaos and vicious perfidy.
Nomads hunted and gathered on my slopes before the plains were cleared and the first crops planted. Here, before the blood of battle stained my soul, Fionn, cursed by the hag, swam in my lake. His people, the Fianna, protected my slopes. Here, Cullan the blacksmith named me and built his house from my rugged rocks and stones. Up here Setanta met the king, killed the hound and was re-named by the druid Cathbhadh. From my peak the warrior watched the army of Maeve advance on the open plain, push through the north gap, the sunlight glinting off their weapons. He lay in patient wait, then struck them down with ferocious intent, and saved the wild red bull of Cooley.
From my summit I watched Egfrid, the Saxon with his brutal armies, destroy and pillage and take my people as slaves to foreign lands. I cried as the Norsemen sailed into the place of the ‘dark pool’ to wreak their havoc and plunder and burn with merciless mindlessness. I stood helpless as the Normans conquered with frightening force and took my rocks to build their castles and great houses.
But up here too, the poets gave birth to words that transcend the ages and echo across the fields and valleys, carried on the mournful winds. Up here I listened to the bards when they met in the summer and announced the coming of the young Pretender, giving birth and free reign to words of hope that transcend the ages and still echo across the fields and valleys, carried on the wind. I cheered as the rapparee from Carnally outran the scourge of the Fews and made way to the safety of the hideout at Flagstaff.
From up here I watch over the ancient places, now at rest down below my granite crags and gorse-covered flanks. The ‘churches of the mountain,’ now empty and forlorn, cradle the saint in her earthly repose. Her holy well still flows, unstoppable, with quiet, fluid meander. From up here I can see the ancient roadway that wends its way to Macha, the old fort. I can see down in the valley, the ‘crooked lake’ where the people fished and swam.
I can see both Cashel and Carrigan’s loughs, where the water is still pure and clear as crystal, ice cold to the taste. I can see the ‘church of the priests’ and Ternoc’s inscribed stone, still standing proud in majestic defiance on the old road from Tara. From here I watched as the harsh foreigner ousted the Lord of the Fews, sacked his church and razed his castle. I shivered as a blinding snowstorm swirled through the valley of Mullaghbawn, swept over the brae and buried the kilns at Lislea. I called out to the Bard and the Bishops as they ran for their lives through the old slate quarry, seeking shelter from the royal henchmen, in the Doctor’s quarters.
But from up here too I have also seen enemy and foe alike come together, on common ground with hopeful intent of a peaceful dawn. My heart of granite, softened with words and gestures of a deeper courage and spirit, waits for it to come to pass. Yes, I have seen it all from up here and through it all, I have watched them come and go and still I remain unmoved, unbowed and unbroken. They call me Gullion, the mountain of steep slopes.